How green is my cannabis?

March 06, 2023 | Category : Cannabis Knowledge | Posted By : Deon Maas

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The word “cannabis” is on everybody’s lips. People are singing the praises of the plant and it is celebrated as a revived medical wonder as well as a new way to earn money. There are even claims that can’t always be verified but looks good in print. A lot of the claims may be true, and some of them may not be. But the bigger question is how green is the cannabis industry? Deon Maas investigates.

Everybody hates clichés, but there is a reason they are clichés. They are clichés because they speak the truth and are repeated so very often. So, we’ll start off by getting the cliché out of the way. We are living in changing times and it has become essential to reduce greenhouse emissions. How ironic then that two of the hottest items on the agenda of the pop culture market at the moment are NFTs and bitcoin, both products that are energy intensive.

One of the reasons for the rapidly changing morality around cannabis is that it is one of very few causes that can actually make money rather than cost it. It is much easier to understand the medicinal properties and propagate it, if you stand to make a lot of money from it. On the one hand you look like a progressive thinker, on the other hand you make money. Much easier to convince people to buy into this major change than say, the reduction of the usage fossil fuels or greenhouse gas emissions.

And, as everybody’s favourite teenager, Greta says: “The bigger your carbon footprint – the bigger your moral duty. The bigger your platform – the bigger your responsibility.” Remember that as early as 1972 the Stockholm Declaration linked human rights to the environment.

Which of course brings us to the question of how green your cannabis is. Well, there is good news and there’s bad news. At least at the moment the bar is very low with both the human rights of cultivators and the damage that eradications causes both being in conflict with United Nations law. So, the only way is up, right? Well, don’t be so sure.

The status quo

Cannabis as a business is currently living in a highly excitable echo chamber, where the focus is just on the positive and there is no attempt to try and figure out what future problems a rapidly growing industry may bring. Everybody is focusing on the next place that will legalise or decriminalise and how much money can be made.

The one thing we cannot get away from is that there is a large amount of water being used and this can affect the balance in any eco system. The cannabis plants also emit biogenic organic compounds which influences indoor air quality and furthermore, if you are cultivating indoors, you are using a large amount of electricity because of heating, ventilation, air conditioning and lighting. This energy consumption leads to greenhouse emissions. Lastly there is also the issue of soil erosion and the plant’s ability to absorb heavy metals.

But then, these problems are not unique to cultivating cannabis. This is a general agricultural problem with each specie coming with its own problems.

Indoor cultivation gives you control over all aspects of the process, but is limited by higher costs and environmental implications. At the same time reducing the environmental impact of agriculture is important for sustainability.

The interesting thing is that because of cannabis’s illegitimacy for so long, very few historical researches has been done and it is only now that research institutes are waking up and starting to look at the impact. Studies are young, not always peer reviewed and primarily uses small samples over short periods – not the most stable or trustworthy results will emerge from this. They are also mostly focused on Northern California. For instance, little is known about the impacts of solid waste generated by the cannabis industry or about the carbon footprint of the cannabis supply chain.

It will be a good idea to kick off by looking at the damage that’s been done by the illegal cultivating business and can serve as a solid argument in favour of legalisation, control over how things get done.

How green is illegal cannabis cultivating?

Illegal cannabis is mainly cultivated on public land in the USA. These places are usually in remote areas. This makes it ecologically sensitive. The excessive usage of water that the plants need will reduce water in those areas. At the same time you have pesticides, waste and irrigations systems into these pristine area. And it’s not like anybody is going to clean up after themselves. At the same time, the destruction of these crops by law enforcement leads to even more desecration of these remote areas in the form of chemical herbicides to expedite removal. So by legalising it, the cultivator will have to adhere to higher standards.  

Eric Westervelt, a writer for NPR in the USA describes visiting one of the illegal cultivation sites as follow:

“Finally, the forest gives way to a sprawling grow and camp site. It’s typical in shape: terraced plots carved erratically into a hillside scarred by wildfire. The burned trees and new growth offer some cover from air surveillance. There’s some 3,000 pounds of trash here from discarded clothes and propane tanks to 3 miles of plastic irrigation pipes.

“This one is Bromethalin, which is a neurotoxin rodenticide,” says wildlife ecologist Greta Wengert, holding a spent container that held bags of bait blocks to kill rodents. The plastic irrigation lines snake around a makeshift kitchen littered with open bags of fertilizer and spent bottles of commercial insecticide. Wengert points to a tree where she found about a gallon of concentrated carbofuran, an insecticide banned by the Environmental Protection Agency for all legal purposes.”

Ok, so we all agree that mostly cultivating illegal cannabis is not very green. So, let’s take a look at the legal side.

How green is legal cannabis cultivating?

To determine how green cannabis (or any agricultural product for that matter) is we need to look at land cover change, water use, pesticide use, energy use, air pollution and water pollution.

Agricultural expansion causes forest clearing, carbon dioxide emissions and loss of biodiversity. We know this. This is why there is such an outcry about expansion in the Amazon. Even with the cultivation of cannabis getting more popular, it will never be on the same level as any other agricultural crop, so the contribution to increased emissions are much smaller. From 2000-2013 timber harvest contributed 50,3% of forest canopy loss. At the same time cannabis’s contribution was 1,1%

There has been several peer reviewed studies that looks at the usage of water in outdoor and mixed-light cultivating. In 2015 Bauer et al used satellite imagery to estimate the amount of grows in Northern California and predicted the expected water consumption for it. Going from the departure point that every cannabis plant needs 22 liters of water per day in the three month grow period, it was estimated that consumption could exceed streamflow during the cultivating season.

In an article published in Nature magazine, based on research by the Colorado State University, they found that each kilogram of indoor cultivated cannabis in the US resulted in between 2 283 to 5 184 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions, depending on geographic location (more on that later). If you drive a car for one year, using 2000 liters of petrol your carbon dioxide emissions will be 4 600 kilograms.                        

Greenhouse emissions varied widely based on location (this is that “more on this later” part mentioned above). The low of 2 283kilos was recorded in Long Beach, California and the high of 5 184 kilos was recorded in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. The difference is the energy source used. Long Beach uses primarily natural gas and solar power, Hawaii uses oil-based energy sources. In Colorado, the emissions levels resulting from cannabis cultivation are on par with polluting industries like coal mining and waste management.

But here’s the thing, instead of changing it, it is a new business that can start to be green right from the start. Sustainability has become the buzzword.

“What I have seen across Fortune 500 companies is, they’re trying to improve efficiency to reduce the environmental impact of operations that already exist,” says Annie Davis, vice president of marketing for Flow Cannabis Co. “But what if, from the start, we could build a different model?”

It still has a long history of illegal cultivation that set a precedent of avoiding the cops rather than saving the planet. Moreover, that has meant that cannabis cultivation has missed out on the massive advancements in traditional agriculture. Everybody agrees that new and more research is needed. During the research for this article a lot of contradictory “research” was discovered. On closer inspection a lot of this “research” was found to be funded by industries opposed to cannabis

So, how green is my cannabis and how can I make it even greener?  

The most obvious thing that stands out right from the start is that in order to stay green, you need to make sure that you do not cultivate in an area that has problems with water supply, even if it uses less water than a lot of other agricultural products (remember, we are a new industry and can get things right from the start, we don’t have to correct it later). The same goes for electricity. If you are cultivating inside, do not try to do it in an area that has problems with electricity supply. Best management practises can minimise environmental impact. A solution would be specific rules for cannabis, but we presume that is still a long way off.

If you stand back and have a slightly wider look at the issue, you will notice that there are advantages to the plant: it’s biodegradable, hemp has a variety of applications, it is green energy and easy cultivating and it most definitely is an alternative to chemical based drugs. This in itself gives it a step up.

Cannabis is a renewable energy source that can replace fossil fuels. The oil from cannabis can even fuel aircraft. In order to have clean fuel, cannabis is the one that provides the biggest biomaterial. Biomass as fuel will solve the pollution problem we have. Ok, it’s a long-term plan, but it still good to know that what we cultivate can have a positive effect on the environment.

The uses for hemp is increasing continually – rope, paper, biodegrable plastics, textile (hemp fibre is stronger and more durable than cotton) and even hempcrete which is increasingly used as a building material. Grow a plant, build a home. The seeds are a great source of protein, omega-3 fats, and others. I know I’m most probably preaching to the converted here, but it’s good to be reminded of these things every once in a while. Hemp is a magic plant and it’s uses are virtually endless and the only reason we don’t know this or use this is because some silly legislation banned it 100 years ago.

Hemp is also good for regenerative farming. Regenerative farming is used to maintain and improve soil quality with sustainable planting and harvesting. After a harvest, commercial farmers are forced to replenish and repair the soil they have damaged with artificial fertilisers and chemicals. In regenerative farming, every piece of the process helps prevent nutrient loss.

For indoor cultivation the best is to invest in clean energy equipment and optimise heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems. Use LED rather than sodium lights and be aware of the fact that the correct cultivation ground can help prevent the usage of excessive pesticides. The correct set-up can also help reduce water usage to as little as two liters per day rather than the precited 22 liters per day.

Starting from the ground up as a new industry and using the correct information can help make cannabis cultivation one of the greenest and most sustainable of all agricultural crops.

Hemp is one of the fastest-growing plants in the world and can grow 4 metres high in 100 days. Research suggests hemp is twice as effective as trees at absorbing and locking up carbon, with 1 hectare (2.5 acres) of hemp reckoned to absorb 8 to 22 tonnes of CO2 a year, more than any woodland. The CO2 is also permanently fixed in the hemp fibres, which can go on to be used for many commodities including textiles, medicines, insulation for buildings and concrete. BMW is even using it to replace plastics in various car parts.